Solaris author Stanislaw Lem dies

Author Stanislaw Lem, whose 1961 novel Solaris was the basis for one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, died in his native Poland, at the age of 84, according to his secretary.

According to his obituary on Yahoo news, Lem was one of the most popular science-fiction authors who did not write in English, with 27 million books sold in over forty different languages.

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky turned SOLARIS into a wonderful film in 1972. At three hours in length, it can be challenging for viewers without patience, but the rewards are immense. The story is set above a space station in orbit around the titular planet, which is covered with what seems to be a living plasma ocean. While the Earth scientist try to determine whether the vast organism is in fact a sentient being that are plagued by a peculiar gift that the planet seems to be bestowing upon them: duplicates of loved ones who have died. In effect, the science-fiction elements get pushed into the background as the story turns into a bizarre psycho-drama, where the characters have to confront the “ghosts” of their pasts, embodied in these duplicates. The mystery is deepened by the fact that no one knows why Solaris is doing this: to give them a second chance, or to torture them?

A second film version was directed by Steven Soderbergh in 2002, with George Clooney in the lead, but it failed to achieve the critical stature of its predecessor.

Although the Tarkovsky version is a reasonably faithful adaptation, Lem’s novel stands on its own as a work worth reading. Much of the book is devoted to the history of “Solaristics,” the failed attempts to study Solaris — material that could not be adapted for film. Essentially, it is a meditation on the limits of human knowledge and the scientific method, as human scientists confront a truly alien mystery and find themselves unable to develope a theory that truly explains it.